Muzaffarnagar: The expanding web of injustice and impunity in Uttar Pradesh
An Indian Express investigation published earlier this month revealed that in 40 out of 41 cases pertaining to the 2013 Muzaffarnagar communal violence, all the accused were acquitted in trial courts in cases that involved attacks on Muslims. The state’s lawyer confirmed that they will not be challenging the outcomes in high court.
The reason for the acquittals was lack of evidence — due to witnesses turning hostile on whose testimonies the charge-sheets were based, and major procedural lapses by the police. The sole conviction came in a case where seven Muslim men were alleged to have murdered Gaurav and Sachin in Kawal in August 2013, the incident believed to have triggered the violence. The FIR stated that two motorbikes crashed and a fight ensued, the outcome of which was that Shahnawaz was shot and killed, and a mob beat the two boys to death. A rumour was spread that Shahnawaz had stalked and teased the boys’ sister, feeding into the narrative of “Love Jihad”, and leading to the “Hindu Bachao, Beti Biwi Bachao Sammelan Mahapanchayat”, all within sight of the state administration.
In September 2013, communal violence in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts forced thousands of Muslims — largely agricultural and daily wage workers — out of their villages and into displacement camps. Initially recognised by the Samajwadi Party government, these settlements were left to their own devices three months later. At least 34 people, mostly children, died of the cold later that winter.
Outside of the events of the mahapanchayat, the bulk of the violence — including rape, murder, arson of homes, shops and mosques, and loot — took place in villages where Muslims were in a minority, and where there wasn’t a sizeable presence of landed mulle (Muslim) Jats, with the economic and social power to prevent such violence. In these villages, those displaced have not returned out of fear. This was systematically encouraged by the state government, which required the displaced to claim monetary compensation by signing an affidavit, stating they would never return. This requirement was later rescinded.
Elders in the displacement camps shared with anguish that this unfolded in a part of UP which had remained unaffected by communal violence even through Partition. This time, the ground had been carefully prepared through vested interests to enable turmoil. Young people said they were unsurprised – their parents were always treated poorly and othered while working for Jats. They shared that, from a particular village, a group of Jat men had come to ask only the four lohar (ironsmith) families to return, as they needed their services.
Ashbab, a milk vendor, lost his two brothers in the Muzaffarnagar violence. Those observing the case unfold locally say that Ashbab was the glue holding the case together. He was determined to seek justice for his brothers, and used to bring his elderly father to each hearing on his motorbike. In the last hearing that entailed his examination, he clearly identified the six accused by name. Following this, he faced repeated threats, which he reported in writing to police authorities. Two weeks before his next appearance in March 2019, he was shot five times and killed, just metres away from Khatauli police station, Muzaffarnagar. The family of two other witnesses, Ikram Siddique and his father, shared in the media, with accompanying video footage, that they faced severe intimidation from the police, with Siddique being shot at close range in June 2019 by a plain-clothed policeman, allegedly at the behest of an influential local Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Member of Legislative Assembly.
In the Uttar Pradesh Assembly last week, chief minister Yogi Adityanath provided an insidious whitewash, to a question on the murder of Ashbab and the need for witness protection, by de-linking the death of his brothers from the widespread communal violence, and alleging that one of the brothers – “characterless” and “immoral” – was having an affair with a Hindu married woman.
Faith in procedural laws or the checks and balances of our political system as a fix to injustice is starting to seem hollow, misplaced, and entirely foolish. What really was the point of a toothless Special Investigation Team in this case, or the countless applications for witness support in the face of relentless and brazen intimidation, or the demand last year by the Supreme Court in response to the writ petition filed by surviving witnesses and family members in the Asaram cases that the Witness Protection Scheme be implemented by Uttar Pradesh?
The criminal justice system and those instrumental to it can only ever be held accountable or made to change once we recognise all that it is – a very simple web of impunity and bias across public institutions, persevered, and even been emboldened, through successive governments in the state and Centre.
Gitanjali Prasad is a social worker based in Delhi.
The article has been written with support from Akram Akhtar Choudhary.
The views expressed are personal